People's Daily & Xinhua Shi go public - the contradiction between commercialism and socialist values

Chinese Communist Party media flagships are going public; what will the concequences be for content? And will China ever get round to legislate on the role of the media in society?

By METTE HOLM, February 2012

Cyber platforms of People’s Daily and the national Chinese news agency Xinhua Shi are planning to go public on the Shanghai stock exchange in 2012. Both are media flagships of China’s ruling Communist Party – and were originally founded by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1948 and 1931, respectively.

What will this IPO entail in a larger perspective? I posed this question to Zhao Yuezhi, professor of the political economy of global communication at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia in Canada and China’s University of Communication in Beijing as well as senior associate fellow at the Nordic Institute for Asian Studies in Copenhagen.

Zhao: This has been ongoing for many years, you know, many - even party media outlets - tried to do it years ago, when some of the party news paper conglomerates tried to do this. So People’s Daily online is probably just the latest.

MH: Will anyone buy? And if yes, why? It can hardly be expected to be good business – is it that Mao Zedong actually founded these media

Zhao: It doesn’t make sense, but in the market it probably will, and some people might event think the other way round; that because these media properties are so rare in a sense that it’s a party monopoly media outlet, people might think they have some market advantages. Who knows?

MH: Can it be expected to be good business, or is it more of a curiosity? Like a “collector’s item”?

Zhao: I think for a lot of people, it might be curiosity or banning of the political aspect of the media outlet; but on the other hand some people might think that there might be some kind of market advantage in this kind of media stock

MH: And if we do imagine that these media platforms will become market driven on commercial terms. How will it change content? From ideology & politics to – what? Will it tilt towards sensation, sex, crime etc like we normally see with commercialisation?

Zhao: I think it’s going to have significant impact. You know, in China the Party – or at least from Party rhetoric – you get a sense that they are trying to have the cake of capitalism and eat it too; i.e. they think they can square a circle, they think they can go to the stock market and be listed like any other company, and at the same time try to maintain ideological control.

But I don’t think – in the long run – that is possible. You can already see – just from the commercialisation of the media, you can already see the content of the Chinese media has changed tremendously towards more, yes, sensationalism, crime and all that stuff; and going to the stock market is only going to make the profit motive stronger, so its’ going to have an impact. And I really don’t know what’s in the mind of high level policy makers, who decide to do this!

MH: What will happen to these particular media’s educational and ideological roles since the founding by Mao Zedong before the revolution. Chinese media were supposed to be educational rather than informing; Mao Zedong and his thoughts are enshrined in China’s constitution; will he remain, also, in the “media constitution”?

Zhao: This is a very, very important question. And it’s very clear, if you look at the so called mainstream media, it’s not only commercial papers & media outlets, but even in CCTV & People’s Daily, you don’t see much of Mao Zedong thought, or his idea of what China should be or what socialism should be.

Actually, some of these ideas have been very, very much marginalised in some of the non-commercial and if you will leftist websites, you know those kinds of marginal publications. So, yes in terms of mainstream media, including the party organs, I don’t see much these days of that explicit and actually committed sharing of the original ideas that Mao Zedong had

MH: What will happen to party affiliation? Can we, in fact, talk about CPC going public?? You know, going to the stock exchange?

Zhao: You know, secretly, I think The Party has gone public long ago. Even before, when it decided to open up to the market, when it decided to integrate with the global capitalist market system, if you will; in that sense, The Party went public many years ago.

And if you look at some of the local governments, they are very, very entrepreneurial. And on many issues, e.g. when it comes to labour capital conflicts, especially in Southern China, sometimes local governments are very strongly on the side of capital, so they have gone public in that sense, figuratively, long ago.

But the question then is, have the cake and eat it too … And you can see in the past few years, there has been mounting social contestation against this kind of very, very blunt market oriented capitalistic development. So this is really right now the centre of struggle in China.

MH: In Denmark we have a law on public service broadcasting by which some of the national media are duty bound to inform on matters of public interest, so they can’t only have crime, traffic accidents, sex and entertainment; China does not have such a law. I have heard responsible people from CCTV and other large national media in China complain that when having to earn money and compete on market terms, news prioritisation changes completely – away from information and public service towards tabloid journalism. Might this lead to a media law on public service of sorts in China? Can we expect that China might legislate to safeguard public service in some media?

Zhao: Again that’s a very, very good question. It’s something that has been debated inside China for a long time. So historically, like we discussed earlier, the public role, the information role, the speaking for the people kind of role was contained in the traditional Maoist media framework, right?

But now, with the further commercialisation of the media, and now they are going to more extremes by going on the stock market. There have been arguments that say that yes; we should start a more Western style public broadcasting system. But then the big question becomes the relative autonomy of this kind of media outlet.

And this is something the Party is not be comfortable with. So right now that kind of legislation is not on the agenda. But there has been very interesting developments; e.g. inside China in the city of Chongqing, in the middle of the country, last March (2011), the local satellite television suddenly declared that they would not be broadcasting commercially at all.

They totally de-commercialised their entire satellite system, precisely because the local leadership there saw the massive impact of commercialisation and how it deviates from the kind of role that the media was supposed to be in the original Maoist framework.

That is not a development towards Western style public broadcasting, but a major, major development in China in terms of de-commercialisation, de-commoditisation of Chongqing satellite TV. But, again, as I say right now this is in the middle of controversy, and we don’t know what will happen with that. (Bo Xilai was sacked from the post of Chongqing party chief in March 2012).

If you will, it’s kind of Chinese public broadcasting – or public broadcasting Chinese style; but people don’t see it that way. They say it’s a revival of Maoism.

And also, another aspect that’s contradictory to this kind of stock market development is again – last year the broadcasting authority tried to limit the number of commercial breaks in prime time television, even when they are showing entertainment shows.

Actually, this past spring festival, CCTV’s evening gala performance had no commercials.  So there is that kind of de-commercialisation going on, which in a way is contradictory to further capitalisation and commercialisation of the media; so you can see there are competing tendencies in the Chinese media system. And I think behind this trend are conflicting views about where the Chinese media system should go.

There’s a lot of talk about media censorship in China, but these are important questions in some sense, i.e. the changing economic structure of the media, which has a tremendous impact on the media system.

And I guess most Western journalists don’t even raise these questions, because they take it for granted that if the media become more capitalised or market driven, then it’s a good thing. But I don’t think this is the case, and I don’t think most journalists, even Western serious journalists think that way.

MH: This probably true, they all have their eye on the censorship, but it is interesting, because it’s massive. And what I see at the moment, with the Chinese media going global, I think is so deeply fascinating.

Zhao: It is - and profoundly contradictory. The Party just passed a document, not long ago, about the future of Chinese culture, and they emphasised the common need to protect national culture, and also in rhetoric at least, socialist values. Right?

I’ve been grappling with this for years: how can you sustain and promote socialist values through this kind of reckless commercialism. And I don’t know what ‘s in the mind of those people making the decisions. These are the most for me important questions.

This interview took place in February 2012 and was made into a radio piece in Danish, broadcast on DR (Danish Broadcasting). Listen to it here.

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